The Present State of Higher Education

In October 2015, student protests erupted throughout South Africa’s public universities in response to a10.5 percent tuition increase proposed by President Jacob Zuma. While for the most part peaceful, the protests forced some institutions to shut down. Such student demonstrations on campuses and in social media (#FeesMustFall) sparked a national debate about the value of higher education and who has access to it.

The proposed tuition hike would have prohibited many current students from continuing with their studies. It would also have denied many others the opportunity to even enroll in higher education—particularly black students who have continued to struggle to afford college, given that the average income of households headed by blacks has been only about one-sixth that of the average income for those headed by whites.1 In response to the protests, President Zuma announced there would be no increase in 2016. Yet he also did not give any explanation of how the government would cover the estimated $1.1 billion cost to operate all the institutions in the system, let alone how it planned to fund higher education over the longer term. And despite his pledge not to increase tuition in 2016, the students continued to press the government to address their demand for free education beyond the 2016 academic year.2

Student protests broke out again a year later, in September 2016, when Blade Nzimande, the head of the Department of Higher Education and Training, announced his proposal to allow public universities to set their own tuition fee increases, recommending that such fees not exceed 8 © The Author(s) 2017

D.E. Eynon, Women, Economic Development, and Higher Education, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-53144-1_6

percent. This time, however, the demonstrations turned violent. At the University of Witwatersrand, police shot rubber bullets and threw stun grenades at protestors, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of Cape Town (UCT) had to cancel classes.3

In response to the protests, officials at the Department of Higher Education and Training convened a forum on October 3, 2016, to create a “fee-free” funding model for students from poor and working-class families. The forum was convened to seek a way to end student unrest and keep the universities open as protests turned violent and disruptive. Speaking at that forum, President Zuma announced a 2017 “fee-free” pilot program for students from families who earn less than $43,200 a year. That means that, in 2017, the South African government will support an estimated 75 percent of university students. Zuma also asked that a newly formed Presidential Commission on Inquiry into Higher Education Funding be given the time to finish its work—beyond the pilot program— in identifying lasting solutions to higher education funding.4

Students have also demonstrated on campuses about other issues besides higher tuition fees, such as improving institutional cultures, the creation of curricula more relevant to students’ needs, the hiring of more black academics and administrators, and the removal of colonial symbols.5 In March 2015, for instance, students at the UCT protested on the campus and in social media (#RhodesMustFall), demanding the removal of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, the British imperialist who made his fortune mining diamonds and who donated the land for the campus. Those protests led to additional rallies and the occupation of administrative buildings at the country’s most prestigious universities.

Why have these protests occurred now? Perhaps this is the beginning of a second wave of transition in the country, as the “Born Free” generation has come of age and is increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of economic and social change. The demonstrations signal a pervasive sense among students and others that the post-apartheid government’s promises of greater equality and access to higher education have fallen significantly short.

When he served as president of South Africa (1999-2008), Thabo Mbeki met frequently with university vice chancellors to convey his expectations for higher education and the role it should play in transforming the country in a post-apartheid era. Through these interactions, he made it clear that he expected universities to organize themselves around national initiatives related to economic growth and development—notably the GEAR program—as he saw higher education as the engine to economic growth.6

However, in hindsight, some faculty members and administrators have come to believe such an approach has had a negative impact on universities by “starving” them of the funds needed to redress the inequities that have continued to exist.7 Many people have the sense that higher education has become commoditized, and corporate jargon has crept into the system whereby students are referred to as “clients,” programs need to be “marketed,” and staff and faculty member are “managed,” according to Yvonne Shapiro, Director of the National Learners’ Records Database, South Africa Qualifications Authority (SAQA).8

While people hold varying views on how GEAR has influenced the higher education system, a consensus among policy leaders seems to have emerged that the RDP, if pursued instead of GEAR, would have improved the system in a fundamental way by redressing the inequalities of apartheid. The thinking goes something like this: if the country were operating under the macroeconomic policies of the RDP, universities would not be functioning according to the market-related, student-fee system that they are today. Under the current system, universities set fees according to their perceptions of the market, while under the RDP, the government would have, in contrast, regulated fees in order to maximize access.

According to Harold Herman, emeritus professor of comparative and international education at the University of Western Cape, in countries like the United Kingdom, for example, tuition and fees are held to a certain level, but South Africa has no such regulation.9 RDP would not only have regulated tuition and fees but would also have provided more funding for higher education in general. The shift to GEAR has also encouraged and increased competition among South African higher education institutions, leading to questionable results. As institutions have sought to recruit better students and faculty members, and pursue new research opportunities, it has increased costs, which are often passed along to students in the form of tuition fees. That has led, in turn, to the continued stratification of students as those higher tuition fees have created barriers to access for the poor, who are predominately black.

Not surprisingly, as higher education’s role in meeting the economic growth and development goals of the country has expanded, so has the controversy surrounding the sector.10 One of the core debates in the country today, as in the United States, is the question of whether higher education serves a broader public good or simply empowers certain individuals to advance financially.

South Africa has unquestionably spent considerable thought, time, effort, and resources to restructure and transform its higher education system. This chapter looks at the state of the higher education system today. It examines lingering issues, provides an overview of key performance indicators such as retention rates, and describes the performance of higher education institutions after the consolidation and merger of many universities, colleges and technikons.

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